On October 29, 2015 I received that now all too common phone call, “I’m sorry Mr. Baca you have cancer.” At the age of only 46 I was diagnosed with stage III invasive micro papillary carcinoma, breast cancer that is ER+, PR-, and HER2+. How your life can change so quickly and dramatically.
My story begins May of 2015 when I began working my new job at the Postal service as a letter carrier. I started this job as a non-career employee that worked ungodly hours, never knowing when I would get a day off. One morning I received a call from my boss informing me that I could take the day off. So, when I received that call, I was thinking, Rick, you know what, you need a physical, because it had been a few years since I had one. I picked up the phone and gave Kaiser a call requesting a same day physical. I was quickly informed that they do not do same day physicals, only regular doctor appointments. So I said you know what, I have a lump on my chest. I knew that if I got in there they would see that I hadn’t seen a doctor in a while and they would send me to the lab so I could get my blood work done. Mission accomplished!
The lump was found just a few days prior to making that appointment. Just a harmless, meaningless irritation of my left breast and there it was. Didn’t think much of it and thought it was a just cyst and it would go away. Had they given me that same day physical I probably wouldn’t have even mentioned the lump and I would have had to replace the word Hope with another four-letter word I can think of.
Just one month later I had a modified radical mastectomy of my left breast where I had a 2cm tumor. The cancer regionally spread or metastasized to six of my lymph nodes where I also had another 2cm tumor, which is a little larger than 2/3 of an inch. I had a total of 21 lymph nodes removed. Now I have to watch for the onset of lymphedema, the swelling of my left arm, due to the lack of enough lymph nodes to strain the lymphatic fluids. So far to date no problems with lymphedema.
About three weeks after my surgery I started my six months of chemo. I started with three months of Adriamycin & Cytoxan. Adriamycin is better known as the Red Devil. It’s the stuff most people associate with when they think of chemo. That was followed by three months of Taxol and Herceptin. After that was all said and done, they sent me to the big microwave. Yup, I received five weeks of radiation. I got my 4 blue tattoos and 2nd degree burns. The Herceptin was given for a full year. Herceptin is one of the newer immunotherapies that you probably have been hearing about recently. All infusions were completed by March of 2017. Now I take Tamoxifen daily for a total of at least five years, and hoping for ten if we can get the guidelines changed.
I have to say that the treatment wasn’t the worst part of the experience for me. My doctor said that I am one in a million. I am one of the lucky few that breezed through the treatment without much more than losing my hair, smells bugging me and a little fatigue. I didn’t have any allergic reaction to any of the drugs. But I got to see a bunch of people at the infusion center who did. Not pleasant! I got to listen to all the financial difficulties that people face. I have to say that listening to all those stories made me realize how fortunate I really am. I have a great Cancer Care team, great doctors and nurses, caring staff at Kaiser, and good support at home from my wonderful wife Connie and my beautiful daughter Alyssa, and with the cancer community.
That’s tough for me to deal with. As a young Marine I learned a few leadership traits that I kept with me the majority of my life. One of them is to never let anyone know your problems, but you always help others with theirs. That’s kind of hard to do now that I have cancer and I’m the focus of everyone’s attention.
I struggle with the fact that my family had to hear things like if you’re going to take a vacation, take it sooner rather than later. And it’s worse than expected so you might want to make sure his paperwork is in order.
Now I have to be prepared for retirement and be prepared for my possible untimely departure. We are trying to pay off the house and we are going to see financial planners to make sure my wife and daughter will be taken care of. I have to take care of my life insurance issues and many more issues to speak of.
Now I get to sit around and wait to see if the cancer returns. That’s the part that not many people talk about. Once the treatments are done all you can do is wait and hope you make it to that 10-year cancer free mark. I get to sit around and hope I don’t have to tell my family that it has returned.
You see Cancer has picked a fight with me and while I am waiting for the outcome of this fight, I am choosing to fight back! I am bringing awareness to male breast cancer by telling my story to others during Relay For Life events and I have a fundraising team, Team Pink Brother, for our local Relay For Life where I also serve on the Event Leadership Team. Currently I am working on a project with a local photographer and artist who will be displaying breast cancer scars at a gallery. I will be posing as a breast cancer survivor for this event. My family and I work tirelessly to raise money and awareness for our cause.
In the beginning it was, is this really happening to me? Why? How? I would just stare and wonder how much time I may still have and how being gone will affect my family’s future. In the beginning I was uncomfortable and embarrassed to be shirtless. I felt others seeing my scars would make them uncomfortable. Now I look in the mirror and I am grateful. This scar reminds me that I need to spend more quality time with my family as it’s not about how much time we have left but how we spend it. Now when I look in the mirror, I see opportunity, the opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives. I can take lessons from all the hardships I have endured and hopefully make a difference and hopefully inspire others to do the same. Now I am okay with showing my scars and I am on display for everyone to see.
Use what time you have wisely as none of us really know how much time we have left.